Born in 1928 in London. He initially began work as a carpenter and cabinetmaker before joining the Royal Air Force until 1949. He then studied at St. Martin's School of Art and at the Royal College of Art, London where he received the Rome Prize, taking him to live in Italy in 1955. From there he traveled widely before returning to London and teaching at several schools including St. Martin's School of Art, the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, Kings College, Newcastle upon Tyne, The School of Visual Arts, New York and the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste, Hamburg.
Tilson's early work was more conventional and realist in style, but with contemporary subject matter taken from his surroundings and his travels. He then began to produce reliefs in wood, taking advantage of his skills as a carpenter. A highly formalized abstract language was developed, often consisting of simple geometric forms. With the emergence of the Pop Art movement, Tilson began creating works that contained bold colors and imagery. He explored the grid as a structural device. By the 1960's, Tilson was making use of editioned screenprints and multiples, which made reference to contemporary events and to radical political figures of the time. More recently, Tilson still makes screenprints, but his preference is for more traditional techniques of printmaking such as etching, aquatint and woodcuts.
Tilson's first one-man shows were held at the Marlborough Gallery, London in 1962 and at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool in 1963. He gained international exposure at the XXXII Venice Biennale, leading to his first retrospective at the Boyman's Museum, Rotterdam in 1964. Further retrospective exhibitions have been held for the artist. He continues to exhibit regularly in solo shows throughout the world.
Signs work: "Joe Tilson".
His work is in major museums in the UK, USA, Italy, South America, Australia, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Belgium, & New Zealand.